Watch a New, Origami-Inspired Mechanism That's Iron Man's Suit Come to Life

It's Transformers IRL.

Mechanical engineers have taken inspiration from Iron Man’s morphing suit and the Transformers’ mutating, robotic bodies to create a new first-of-its-kind set of mechanisms. This new class of apparatus works similarly to foldable phone technology by allowing once-rigid machines to transform into retractable, compact devices.

They’re called “developable mechanisms,” which refers to flat shapes that can can be converted into three dimensional figures. Researchers from Brigham Young University have taken the first steps toward allowing critical mechanical components — like the wings of an airplane or the motor cylinder of a vehicle — to collapse into themselves or expand while in operation. This could be the groundwork toward developing shapeshifting robots that can adapt to the task at hand, or vehicles that can change form according to driving conditions, like the Batmobile.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Science Robotics on Wednesday and showed off a handful of developable mechanism prototypes. Despite the plethora of obvious sci-fi related sources of inspiration, professor of mechanical engineering and co-author of the research, Spencer Magleby, said the breakthrough was actually inspired by a paper-folding technique. In fact, they even developed their early models in collaboration with an origami artist named Robert Lang.

Motorized cylindrical-developable mechanism. A motorized, fully revolving linkage emerging from a cylinder that results in a walking motion.

Nelson et al., Sci. Robot. 4, eaau5171 (2019)

“Origami was a stepping stone to this,” said he said in a statement. “The art of origami has inspired us to do things that don’t even look like origami, yet it is the core of much of this new engineering.”

Giving a machine the ability to reduce its footprint on command — like a sheet of paper — could literally double its use-cases. Where once a component might have been too bulky to fit, now it can close up squeeze right in. This kind of innovation has the potential to immediately benefit a wide range of industries.

Quadcopter drones might be able to adjust their wing spans to fit into tight spaces during rescue operations. Interplanetary rovers could be launched into space in a compact form and then expand like Swiss Army knife once they land. Solar panels might be made to fold up at night to avoid weathering and unfurl during the day. Airplanes could become more fuel efficient by expanding their wings mid-flight to give them more lift and flight endurance.

A conical developable mechanism that conforms to a cone

Nelson et al., Sci. Robot. 4, eaau5171 (2019)

Making all of this a reality won’t be easy though.

Giving machines the ability to retract into themselves means extra mechanical devices to facilitate these complex new movements. That would result in an increase in overall weight, which could be detrimental to vehicles like planes, at least in terms of energy consumption.

Lighter and less-dense materials would need to be used so certain vehicles won’t be weighted down by developable mechanisms. But co-author Larry Howell is confident that this is the beginning of an innovation that could make the tech in movies come to life.

“It’s pretty cool to accomplish things that have merely been science fiction in the past,” he said in a release. “These are discoveries that will enable us to do things that no one has ever been able to do before. And we hope that other engineers, as they build on these discoveries, will apply them in ways that will help make the world a better place.”

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